The Career Of A Lifetime For Local TAFE Student Alek

A career in animal care was thought to be just a pipe dream for Coffs Coast local Alek, until he started his Certificate II in Animal Studies at TAFE – supported by Coffs Coast Wildlife Sanctuary (formerly Dolphin Marine Conservation Park).

This course was the gateway to a dream career for Alek, who has since risen through the ranks to become an Animal Trainer working with endangered Australian sea lions, dolphins and other marine animals at the park. 

And it all started back when he was just 10 years old – an eager visitor who begged to be taken to see the animals most weekends and holidays.

“Because I loved visiting so much, my mum gifted me with a dolphin experience where I met Bella, our beautiful, now-eighteen-year-old, female dolphin,” Alek says. 

“I remember the trainers being really lovely, friendly and kind, and also teaching me so much and patiently answering all of my questions. 

“The following year I met Maxine, an amazing endangered Australian Sea Lion. Ten years later, when I started working at the park, Maxine became the first seal I learned how to train – even though she was definitely training me more than I was training her.” 

Alek’s career would not have been possible without Dolphin Marine Conservation Park – it’s the only venue in NSW teaching a Certificate III in Wildlife and Exhibited Animal Care for free via TAFE.

The program gives Coffs Harbour students first priority to learn how to care for these animals. 

For a year, they attend the park weekly to learn about best welfare practices, how to rehabilitate injured wildlife, and how to present information to the public with the hope of inspiring them to take positive action.

Without the marine park, students would need to apply and be accepted into courses that cost thousands of dollars and travel much further afield to complete their studies. 

For Alek, starting his TAFE studies at the park was a game-changer.

“I felt like Charlie entering the chocolate factory for the first time! It made my studies much more meaningful as I was able to link theory and practice. It was truly the highlight of my week, every week, for the entire year.”

It was such a dream come true for Alek, that he wasn’t convinced it could lead to a paid career. But when a role came up at the park, he applied anyway. 

“I thought it would be just good practice for the application and interview process – I didn’t really think I’d get the job. Now, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it. 

“It has continued to be a steep learning curve, but the skills and knowledge I gained through my TAFE courses, and the confidence I gained through my work placement, really set me up well for success,” he says.

Alek’s first role was in Guest Services and the rehab hospital. He then became an Animal Care Attendant, where he cared for the park’s colony of 16 little blue penguins, 33 freshwater turtles and two peacocks. 

He was then surprised by his mentor with his first “bridge” or training whistle – a huge milestone in the career of any animal trainer. This signalled the start of his work with the park’s dolphins and sea lions.

Taking care of these special mammals is a huge role, but one that Alek says is hugely rewarding.

“Most of our training involves teaching behaviours that enable us to care for our animals in a safe and stress-free way. It also ensures the animals are physically and mentally stimulated, which is very important for their wellbeing.”

His favourite part of the job, though, is sharing his passion with visitors who are falling in love with these animals for the very first time. 

“I really believe that the education programs we run at the park can lead to people changing their behaviours. Our guests have wonderful, positive, personal interactions with our animals and then learn about the effects of pollution on these animals – and that makes a real impact. 

He’s also passionate about the rehabilitation work that takes place at the park – with more than 400 marine animals rescued, rehabilitated and released each year.

“Sea turtles are such beautiful and serene creatures – it’s distressing to see them come into our care sick and injured, knowing that this is often the result of human behaviour and indifference. 

“Releasing a sea turtle back into the ocean after months of care is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world and it brings me so much joy and fulfilment,” says Alek.

It’s these incredible contributions – education, employment, inspiration, conservation and animal rescue – that make the park so vital to the community.

But, there are questions about whether or not it can continue – the park recently entered voluntary administration and without support, it may soon close.

This news, whilst devastating, fuels Alek’s passion for the park – and saving it.

“On a personal level, this park has helped me find who I am and what I want to dedicate my life to. Voluntary administration has given us a fighting chance to save our park and give back to a place that has given so much over the years – not only to me, but to the Coffs Harbour community and the animals that we rescue, rehabilitate, and release.

“Dolphin Marine Conservation Park has been a tourism staple to the Coffs Coast for the past 52 years, as well as a haven for thousands of marine animals that will no longer have anywhere to go, or anyone to give them a second chance at life. We simply cannot afford to lose it.”

Read more stories about Dolphin Marine Conservation Park